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01 Apr

Calculating Easter: Irish Computus to the Carolingian Renaissance

A bearded Christ with long hair sits, a red book in his left hand, with eagles either side of his head, a cross over him, surrounded by interlaced borders

In his Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, c. 731 AD) Bede noted that the Irish (Scots) and Britons had differed from the rest of the Western Church regarding Easter: “they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; which computation is contained in a revolution of eighty-four years” 1

This might suggest the Irish were at fault. Yet, for the past centuries and into the Carolingian Renaissance Irish scholars were at the forefront of “computus”, the development of the ecclesiastical calendar, most particularly the date of Easter. To do this correctly required observation of the moon, and facility at mathematics. “What Irish scholars of the seventh century achieved, therefore, was a comprehensive understanding of Easter reckoning, which was to become the unanimously accepted system for the calculation of Easter, from the ninth century onwards, for the rest of the Middle Ages and in the Orthodox Church to the present day”2.
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18 Mar

Nietzsche: “Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century”

How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.

Nietzsche (1968) Human, All Too Human, p. 238.

17 Mar

Who will separate us? Patrick and division in 17th and 18th century Ireland.

Icon of St Patrick of Ireland standing between St Ambrose and St Gregory

In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.

Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”

The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.
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05 Feb

Edwin Schrödinger: What is Life?

A white cat plays with a ball in a box, with a skeleton cat in the same pose diagonally across from it.

If parallel universes exist, there is one in which Eamon de Valera lived out his days as a maths teacher. In that universe, Edwin Schrödinger never came to Dublin, and probably never wrote What is Life?.

Edwin Schrödinger fled Berlin and Nazism in 1933, travelling to Oxford (where he heard he had won the Nobel Prize) and Princeton. The famous Schrödinger’s cat paradox appeared in his essay The present situation in quantum mechanics (1935), based on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. A thought experiment where a cat sealed in a box either lived or died depending on whether a quantum event occurred, it seemed to suggest two universes, one with a dead cat and one with a living cat, existed in parallel until an observer saw whether the cat was alive or dead.

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15 Jan

Iris Murdoch on the unity of the virtues

[M]oral advance carries with it intuitions of unity which are increasingly less misleading. Courage, which seemed at first to be something on its own, a sort of specialised daring of spirit, is now seen to be a particular operation of wisdom and love.[…] ​Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is self-less respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.

Iris Murdoch (1970/2013) The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge, p. 93.

01 Jan

“My accomplished friend”: the life and philosophy of Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, 250 years ago on 1 January 1768. She was the eldest daughter and third child of the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. Maria Edgeworth’s mother died when she was six and her father remarried the following year.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth had inherited both an estate in Mastrim, Co. Longford and an neglectful attitude to it. He spent little time there until 1782, when the entire family removed there. The move was partially prompted by the views of the English midlands industrialists and philanthropists with whom he associated (he was a Benthamite and a friend of many members of the Lunar society including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgewood). This was also constitutionally an interesting time: there was an ongoing demand in Ireland for parliamentary reform, and Grattan’s Parliament was established the following year.

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29 Dec

The Irish Constitution and the evolution of Human Rights

The statue of Hibernia that stands on the Dublin General Post Office, with an Irish flag in the background

The Irish Constitution is the fundamental law of Ireland (the Republic of Ireland). Approved by a statewide plebiscite held on 1 July 1937, it came into force on 29th December 1937, 80 years ago today.

A constitution absolutely ours

It replaced the 1922 Constitution that established the Free State after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty caused deep division, resulting in the splitting of Sinn Fein into pro-Treaty (Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael) and anti-Treaty factions and a bloody eleven-month civil war1. The anti-treaty side lost, and abstained from participation in the Dail. In 1926 Sinn Fein split further when Eamon de Valera suggested ending abstention. de Valera’s group formed Fianna Fail, which went on to win the 1932 General Election. From 1933, de Valera started a series of amendments to a constitution that he viewed as “imposed from without” by the British. In 1935 he stated “I hope…that we will be able to bring in a constitution which…will be absolutely ours.”2

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23 Dec

CS Lewis critiquing Christmas

Lucy meets Tumnus: against a snowy landscape, a little girl and a faun carrying parcels stand under a wrought iron streetlight.

“Always winter and never Christmas!” The dismay expressed at that idea in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does not mean that C.S. Lewis was an uncritical fan of Christmas. In 1957 he wrote “What Christmas means to me”, critiquing the idea of Christmas1

Lewis outlines the three meanings of Christmas: as a religious festival (“important and obligatory for Christians…of no interest to anyone else”), a popular holiday (“an occasion
for merry-making and hospitality…I much approve of merry-making”) and a commercial racket. This third is what Lewis objects to.

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30 Nov

The quotable Swift – is that his only relevance today?

Jonathan Swift, by Francis Bindon, oil on canvas, circa 1735.

Three and a half centuries after his birth, we’re still quoting Swift. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” was a byword in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish trade war of the 1930s, and his advice to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year” was revived after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. In these days of Brexit, both leavers and remainers quote him, perhaps pointing out that “[i]t is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom” or that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.

While Swift might provide a quote for all seasons, some applications of his words might have enraged him. The reworking of “[r]easoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired” against religion is a case in point: Swift made the remark against freethinkers (such as the man who shared his birthday, John Toland.) Yet it would not have surprised him. Swift was as cynical about the world he lived in as he was hostile to the forces he saw stirring within it.

It may seem strange that the father of microcredit and the father of mental health care in Ireland should have been hostile to progress. Perhaps his family motto Festina Lente (Swiftly, Slowly) gives a clue. Swift saw the wisdom of the past being rejected in favour of the new philosophy (much of which we would call the new science.) All too swiftly, traditional ideas in politics, religion and society were being overturned indiscriminately.
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21 Nov

Voltaire and Swift

SIR,

I sent the other day a cargo of French dulness to my lord lieutenant. My lady Bolingbroke has taken upon herself to send you one copy of the Henriade. She is desirous to do that honour to my book; and I hope the merit of being presented to you by her hands, will be a commendation to it. However, if she has not done it already, I desire you to take one of the cargo, which is now at my lord lieutenant’s. I wish you a good hearing; if you have got it, you want nothing. I have not seen Mr. Pope this winter; but I have seen the third volume of the Miscellanea; and the more I read your works, the more I am ashamed of mine. I am, with respect, esteem, and gratitude, sir, your most humble and most obedient servant,

VOLTAIRE.

John Nichols (ed) 1801 The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, DD, Dean of St Patricks Dublin, arranged by Thomas Sheridan, Volume 12, London, p. 269.
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